Horla Fiction (July 2020)

PHANTOM

by MATT TURNER

“AND what about the legs? Any pain?”

“Not even a tingle,” he said, and he meant it.

“I’d be surprised if there were, Jim,” the doc consulted his file, and his eyes tipped over the rounded spectacles in that professional way they always did. “You’re paralysed.”

James Franklin glanced out the bay window and across the garden. The bushes had grown wild again during spring. He spent the winter at his sister’s place over in Bristol before coming home when the weather changed – The winter sea brought an elemental bleakness that would be too much for a man like him. He could last the summer, but only with the weekly care packages from Sinker’s farm. It was a big coastal house for one man to manage, especially in a wheelchair, and the nearest village sat a mile or two down the road. WiFi was patchy and the phoneline cracked a little in a storm. But he liked the quiet.

“Any constipation?”

He slapped the ileostomy bag a little too hard. “No such luck.”

“And what about your mood?”

“Same as always.”

Doctor Hartley – Peter – was a friend first, and physician second. He gave the latter its time when it was due. “James, it’s been five years now. Your sleep should be improving, at least. If you need me to review the medication …”

“It works fine,” said James. In truth, he had stopped taking it some months before. They cut his dreams to pieces, and he would wake up more tired than before he had gone to sleep.  “Honestly, Pete, if I could just get a handle on the hedges my mind would be right as rain.”

Peter looked unconvinced but had the grace not to push it. “How’s Betty?”

He said his sister was well. She would be halfway back to Bristol by now. Her disdain for the coast outweighed her love for him. She had never wanted them to move here.

“And you’re sure you’re up to this?”

“Just like every year.”

Peter stood. “You have my number. Jill and I would love to have you for dinner. Give us a ring if you need to get away.”

He patted James on the shoulder on the way out, a well-choreographed dance.

As he left, James caught himself looking back in the mirror in the hall, a stranger in a chair.

It was the first thing most people asked, usually with their eyes: How’d it happen?

He had asked the question, himself, to others, though rarely since. Most times it was a car accident, or people were just born that way. But not James. When people heard his story, masked fervour gave way to blank shock. That was better. An interesting cripple was hard to come by. Boring ones were a ten a penny.

James would tell them he had been mowing the lawn on a hot summer’s day, beads of sweat pooling on his back. The house had been new. He and Kathy bought it at an auction early that year – the acre and a half had won them over. And the house had potential. A Georgian cottage overlooking the Cornish coast, with rotted beams and stained, cracked windows. The land had been majestic, but while they were making headway restoring the house, the garden had grown neglected and wild. More than once, he had thought about settling, but Kathy wouldn’t allow it. Just wait, she’d said. It’ll be perfect for the kids.

But kids hadn’t arrived, and Kathy had left.

The sun had been hot that day. He might have had a beer too many and wrestled too stubbornly with an upended root. The mower blade had slipped loose, jetting across the floor and painting the freshly mown grass a deep crimson shine. Nerves severed, he hadn’t felt a thing. And he never would.

He wheeled down the hall, now, conducting a mental inventory. The clock had stopped – he made a note to replace the batteries. Nothing else had changed. He found a book, face down at the last page he had read the year before. He and Kathy were smiling above the fireplace, the picture too high to take down, and he was too proud to ask anyone to do it for him.

He found lasagne in the freezer, which had come in the final care package of the previous autumn, and ate it on the veranda overlooking the sea.

The dreams were back.

In the first, he and Kathy had been driving along the coast. A memory, he knew, of their first trip to Cornwall shortly after they had got married. The car had started overheating at Plymouth, and Kathy was worried. “I think we should call a mechanic.”

“It’ll be fine,” he had said. The air-con had failed, and the car felt like a microwave. “You worry too much.”

She bit her lip but said nothing. He could tell she was angry with him, and he felt a flash of resentment. “Is there anything else?”

“Not at all,” but it sounded like there was.

(He felt cold. The earth hard and frosted beneath his feet. The cold moon bathed his skin as he worked, and the brambles whipped and sliced at his forearm).

***

The next day, James wheeled himself up the garden as he always did. He would spend fifteen minutes or so casting his eyes across the ocean. Nothing but water between here and Spain.

The hedgerows were really out of control. They crept to the house, but a little inlet had appeared about halfway up. He pondered it a moment, thinking it looked like someone had been at it with a strimmer.

He mostly spent the day reading, and thinking, and before long the sun crept red over the horizon and he returned to bed.

Kathy used to say that she wanted kids, but they never got to the deed. It wasn”t her fault. Her father was an abusive drunk, and although she never spoke about it, he saw a look in her eye when they went to visit that told him all he needed to know. Another dream, another memory.

“No, James. I just don’t feel like it.”

“You never do,” he said. He felt a dull pain. Blue balls. “I’m a man, Kathy. And I need to feel like it once in and while.”

She folded her arms, lips pouting like a scorned toddler. “See … that kind of thing is the problem …”

(The hedge was warm that night. The groove provided natural shelter from the coastal wind. He ripped and pulled at the branches. Thorns bloodied his palm, and his feet scratched on the thistly ground).

***

He awoke early that morning and knew something was wrong. There was a ratt … ratt … ratt … coming from downstairs. The front door knocking in the wind.

He rolled over and heaved himself up onto the windowsill. The hedge was still shadowed, but he could see it clear as day. The groove had spread inward, burrowing deeper into the overgrowth. His own legs were dirtied, and he found he has wet his pants. His hands were calloused, and he felt tired. Web MD had “sleep walking”, but another site suggested something else… But he doubted whether it was even possible.

He asked Peter as much.

“Phantom limb?” Peter sounded sceptical down the line. “Well, sure it can happen. You can feel a hand if it’s missing, a paraplegic might get a twinge in his toe, but it’s a problem with the wiring. Not actually real.”

“And say someone had nerve damage in their hand? Could they start doing things again? Writing in their sleep?”

“No,” said Peter. A pause. “James, is everything okay up there?”

“Fine, just thinking.”

“About Kathy?”

His stomach tightened. “It’s just the hedges …”

“Those darn hedges,” said Pete. “You’ve heard of displacement? It’s a psychological term.”

“Can’t say I have.”

Another pause. “It means that it isn’t about the hedges, James. Let me book you in to speak to someone. It’s been five years. Kathy will have moved on.”

“It’s not about that,” he snapped. Why couldn’t people let him be? She had left him, “The hedges are wild. That’s all.”

“Why don’t I hire someone to come and cut them back?”

Panic, strange and remote. “No,” he said. “I’ll deal with it.”

***

The hedge kept on dragging out as the week progressed. Every morning, he checked, leaving little markers. He found a felled branch down the lawn and dropped it at the boundary. The next morning, it had flung back toward the house. His boots might have been dirty, he couldn’t tell. He never got around to cleaning them. Kathy used to deride him for that.

“Just once, I want you to think!”

She had thrown her dishtowel on the floor and looked at him like a scorned child.

“Don’t talk to me like that in my own house!” he snapped. “You clean the floor and expect me to tiptoe around like a mouse? I live here too!”

She had thrown a dish then, and it missed him by mere inches. “Get OUT!”

***

He sat in the kitchen, staring at the mark on the wall. They had painted over it together, but he could feel a faint indent where the china had hit. Their relationship had had its ups and downs – (“I’m suffocating, James”) – but the love had always been there. They had managed, at least until the accident.

He felt his life had flipped. No more work for a cripple hauling freight. The unions had little sway, and there were no accessible trucks. Truth be told, he resented it. The need to have one.

Kathy had tried to keep him occupied. Painting, music, pottery. He hated the way she would scurry around him, desperate to please. He told her as much and she made him regret it.

“You’re so mean now,” she had sobbed from chair by the window. “It was bad before, but now… I don’t think I can take it for much longer…”

“Then don’t,” he had said, and he really meant it. He felt like a broken thing, helplessly confined to the steel frame. “You think I need your pity? I can do this myself.”

And now she was gone.

***

Peter called on him again after a month. By then, the hedge had a narrow trench running through it. He could see it, cutting through in a swerving line and disappearing over the hill and out of sight. If it had been him, he thought, the path would reach the cliff soon.

Good.

“You look a little worn out, James. Are you sure you won’t join us for dinner, Sunday? Jill’s doing a rack of lamb.”

“I’ll be fine here,” and he thought about asking the doctor to go outside, walk the path for him. “Those damn hedges need seeing to.”

Peter set his file down on the table. “I’m worried about you.”

That angered him. “I’m doing fine. It’ll be Autumn in a while. Can’t I just get a little peace before Betty drags me out again?”

The concerned tone remained. “Just promise you’ll call if anything comes up.”

And he had left.

***

The solstice passed, and he noted the gradual crawl of sunset earlier into the day. A few times it set between the bushes, slipping into the gap being carved out by whatever mysterious force went to work each night.

Something picked at him, itching and crawling through his brain. The path was wide, and yet the ground was too rough for him to steer the chair along. He tried it once, nearly sprawling sideways into the thorns. And it kept on clearing. He could no longer see the end of it, but the grass had fallen back, the soil beneath well-trodden. Someone was walking it, maybe daily. Nightly.

He thought of picking up the phone, calling Kathy. But then he remembered that last day.

He had come down to breakfast. She was already there. It was the same every morning. Once they might have asked, “sleep well?” But now she stared back with sunken eyes. It made him sick, the way she sabotaged every day, infecting him with her misery.

“Can’t you cheer up, for god’s sake?”

She had nodded, voice hollow. “Yes, James.”

“The washing up is still here.”

“Yes, James.”

“Jesus, can’t you say anything else?”

She flinched. “Whatever I say, you’ll just twist it.”

He slammed his hand on the table. “Don’t turn this around on me,” he swiped at her mug, and it shattered on the tiled floor. Her eyes flew open. “You have everything you want! And look at me. I have nothing!”

The rest was clouded. He remembered her screaming, and he remembered a fist, a look of horror, and then the image had gone.

***

James snapped awake, nerve twinging in his hip. The room was pitch black, and the window had flung open, roaring wind coursing through. Autumn had arrived. The sea spray drifted from the raging torrent beneath the cliff and he found the sheets a little damp. Not only that.

Mud smeared on white cotton and across the carpet below. The prints stalked from the door to where he lay. He lifted into the wheelchair, wrapping his dressing grown tightly to ward off the gale.

It felt like winter coming a month early. The ocean cast a cold from the south, and it nipped and jabbed at his flesh as he wheeled across the lawn.

The dream remained, drifting to and fro in his waking mind. Stop, James. You’re getting worked up, came a feminine voice.

He arrived by the inlet at the hedge. The ground was worn smooth, and his chair managed to get about halfway up the trail before stopping.

The bushes were tall, higher than the year before. Whoever was doing this was working hard, such was the determination required. He caught a glint of white, torn cloth, and leaned forward, as though he might reach the end of the on sheer will alone.

James, please. Get off.

Dream flittered by, and his leg twitched. One of the wheels had snagged on a thicket, and he pushed with all strength to break through. It slipped and he was thrown forward onto the earth. It was rough on his palm. The trail was fresher, here.

The sun was yet to rise, and he thought with a thrill that he might find the culprit at the end. He looked back to his wheelchair, feeling helpless but so alive.

He grabbed a handful of thick grass, and pulled, dragging his body over the damp ground.

This went on for some time, and the sky grew a faint shade of violet as dawn approached. The effort exhausted him, and he thought that he might go too far. Be unable to turn back. He wondered whether anyone would find him. Or maybe they would think he had disappeared.

Like Kathy, said a voice.

Cuts and scrapes, bruises and searing pain in his biceps.

He reached a clearing; he didn’t know after how long. The hedge opened out and gave way to a shadow trench that dipped low in the middle.

A tiny pond dampened the earth, reflecting the steel white of moon. He sat back, resting weight on his arms.

A final dream, a memory…

Kathy was by the pond, potting colourful plants she had picked up at the market. They smelled good, like the floral shows over in Dartmouth. The smell of summer, scones, tombolas, and the days when they were young and would visit old manors and National Trust maintained gardens. It had made it worse, the impotency of it. The knowing that he would never walk again or visit state homes and winding paths and cascading waterfalls. He tutted and sighed a lot, he remembered that much.

“Would you rather wait inside?” she had asked, hands digging in the fresh compost.

“No, by all means,” he had said. “Bring me along with you. Carry me around like a doll.”

He had been hot that day. She had left him in the midday sun and sweat had wet his jeans. At least, he had thought it was sweat. “James … Just once, can you not be like this?”

“Like what?”

She had wiped a glove over her forehead, leaving a trail of dirt. “Like a petulant boy! I could have left you in the house, staring at the walls. Would you have enjoyed that?”

He swore. “Don’t talk to me like that … you … you …”

And she had laughed, and it had cut him, worse than the mower had, in a deeper, darker place. “Or what? You’ll teach me a lesson? I don’t think you’re up to it, James. Not anymore.”

He had felt it then. The familiar static that charged his gut and wired his brain. Rage flashed under skin, and his legs had trembled a little, so small that he thought he had imagined it.

“In fact,” she had stood, taking him by the handle. “Why don’t I just put you over here.”

He saw the garden turn, and only hedge remained. The thin Box that bordered the nature pond. She had turned him right around, like a kid on the naughty step.

She spoke again, further away. “I think I’ll finish up here. It’s lunchtime. You’ll be okay out here on your, won’t you, darling?”

He had felt it, just as he did now in the darkness of the path. Sun and night. Then and now. The knee moved first, thawing from a frost. Then the foot, and he felt the strength like a deep throb, like a weight had been taken, and he could fly.

He woke again, as the sun began to creep over the horizon.

Dew glittered the ground, but he was further now. Standing.

In a daze, he walked to the pond, more memories flooding forth.

James? shock first, horror second. I don’t understand…

The water’s surface was white with the moon, but something shimmered underneath.

James? What are you doing?!

He saw it first. The glint of gold, green now with algae. He remembered buying it, back before. It had cost more than a month’s salary. She had been happy. His own ring now lay on the mantlepiece, below the picture he could never remove.

Please … You’re hurting me …

The Kathy in the pond stared back at him, her eyes empty sockets, her face rancid and consumed, but her cheek bones … they were the same

There has been silence, deafening. He had fallen; the fury that had given life to his feet had disappeared. Her blank face had stared back just as it did now.

He landed hard on the water bank, wind rushing from his lungs. The ghost of her pale hand was upright, nearly breaking the surface.

And now he remembered. He remembered the fire and the water, that perfect raw power of rage and the feeling of her neck in his palm.

He crawled. Just like back then, he crawled through the hedgerow, which had spread like fire through the garden since. He found the chair, and he used it, until the flattened grass fell smooth under the wheels.

The cliff called, and he knew it had been the same before. He let the chair halt on the edge, the uninhibited gale hitting him full on, challenging the brakes to fall back.

It’s been five years, Pete had said.

And he knew it. And the hedges spread, and he buried it. Buried the past where it belonged.

***

Betty called. It might have been a day, a week later. Pete had come. He always did. They found him waiting outside, suitcase packed.

“You look awful.” Betty did not sugar-coat things.

“It’s been a long summer.”

“You say that every time.”

He fell silent. They lifted him into the car, a ragdoll.

“Same time next year?” said Pete, a resigned smile.

He nodded, “Same time.”

Betty shifted the car into gear and pulled away. The house disappeared behind them, and they started on the long journey to winter. “You need to get someone to cut back that hedge,” she said. “It’ll swallow the house one day.”

“Maybe,” he said, and he hoped it would.

 

***

Matt Turner is a teacher of science and lover of all things that go bump in the night. He lives in Hampshire, England, with his partner, child and Springer Spaniel, Joey. His favourite authors include: Joe Hill, Sarah Lotz, Paul Tremblay and Stephen King. Hie says his fiction ‘draws on that toe-curling line between everyday life and nightmarish horror’. He wants the reader to experience what he calls relatable terror – that crawling sensation when they glance out of the window at night, hoping they will see only their reflection staring back . . . 

Title photo credit: Jake Hinds on Unsplash

Standard Horla disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction